Lucile Hadžihalilović doesn’t make many films; Earwig being her third in almost twenty years. Yet in just three works, she has established herself as a filmmaker of uncompromising vision, the weird stories she tells focused on childhood, with strong elements of body horror.
A film about a young girl with ice cubes for teeth, it’s befitting the pace of Earwig is glacial and therefore demanding of your complete attention. Adapting the novel by Brian Catling, this is Hadžihalilović’s first feature in the English language, though the dialogue is generally minimal, with no words spoken at all in the first 20 minutes. The result on screen is a strange tale set in an unnamed European country, in the 1950s, the aftermath and psychological scars of the Second World War sit heavy like thick fog.
Mia (Romane Hemelaers) lives a secluded existence with Albert (Paul Hilton), her guardian and most likely her father, in a spartanly furnished apartment. On certain days, Mia is forced to wear a head brace fixed with tubes leading to two vials and undergo a procedure. Albert collects her saliva, puts it into a mould and resets the dentures into ice cube teeth and they are refitted. Why this occurs, how this bizarre medical condition came to be, is, well, a mystery, though Hadžihalilović hints, via flashback sequences: it’s perhaps the tragic effect of Mia’s mother dying in childbirth; making it a sort of surrealist symbol of grief, the cycle of mourning. Maybe…
Is Earwig the story of a father caught between resentment and love for his child? All readings are welcome, actively sort. We can glean Albert returned home from the battlefield traumatised and then his home life was destroyed further when Mia was born, and his wife died. Still, so much of Earwig is unwilling to truly clarify the few plot points there are. Instead, it permits the audience to interpret what they see and to come to their own conclusions. In this regard, Hadžihalilović’s oeuvre is closer to fine art or abstract sculpture than to the traditions of theatre or literature. She isn’t obscurant for the sake of it, it isn’t empty arthouse posturing. Her cinema is guided primarily by the cumulative mood of its images, i.e., the best kind of cinema there is.
Does Earwig mark the closing of a trilogy centred on childhood and children being prepared, through macabre rituals, for the even more frightening world of adults? Or is this her specific field, her favoured terrain, her mapped out territory? Whatever the hell it is, she’s a visionary, a staunch believer in avant-garde plots, a creator of sensory marvels, a crafter of hypnotising pictures. In a just world, Hadžihalilović would be as acclaimed as somebody like Tim Burton, whose greatest films boast a spiritual connection of sorts to the French director. What a prospect Lucile Hadžihalilović’s take on Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children would have been.
Visit the BFI London Film Festival page to delve deeper into the wealth of films on show this year.
Martyn Conterio | @martynconterio